Behind the Mask and the McGurk’s Bar Massacre

As a life-long researcher of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre which claimed the life of my grandmother and 14 other civilians including two children, I am on an eternal hunt of archives and texts for information.

This search brought me to Dr. Aaron Edwards’ new book, UVF: Behind the Mask, which turned out to be quite an apt title as I find myself considering the role of the author and, indeed, me – the reader – when I turn the pages to read about the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.

My reason for coming to the text was because I had hoped that Edwards’ book would throw me even a snippet of new information regarding the attack especially considering his relationship with the likes of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) commanders, Billy Mitchell and Jim McDonald.

A writer’s relationship with sources and organisations such as the UVF and British Ministry of Defence – Edwards is a Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst – could be beneficial to us as readers and result in a greater understanding of the subject. That depends on whether stakeholders in those organisations had editorial oversight at any or all stages and/or whether the author chose to censor himself.

Unfortunately, instead of trawling new information, I find myself questioning and correcting what he has written about the McGurk’s Bar atrocity and, indeed, commenting on what he has not.  It may seem trivial – this is an assessment of but 3 pages of 334 and this review runs longer – but it regards the murder of our loved ones and we have fought for 2 generations for the truth to be told.

This single massacre accounts for nearly 3% of the UVF’s killings during our most recent conflict. The publication of the book also follows 45 years of disinformation and false reporting.

Indeed, even within the few pages, there are a couple of sections where the writer is in danger of being read as an apologist for a sectarian child killer and a sectarian police force. More about this danger below.       

Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell was a “close friend and mentor” of Edwards. The author is very open about this and we have no reason to suspect that would impact upon his objectivity.

Mitchell has also been reported elsewhere (Allison Morris, Irish News, and by me) as the person who ordered the attack which resulted in the McGurk’s Bar massacre. His conversion to non-violence occurred whilst in prison – he served time for his role in the double murder (and attempted disappearance) of fellow Loyalists – and after he had been a leading commander of a sectarian killing machine [i] during the most violent years of the conflict.

His final militant role as Director of Operations, “making him responsible for targeting the group’s enemies”, must not have been too difficult considering that 85% of the UVF’s killings were of civilians and 9% fellow Loyalists (ref. Sutton).

Nevertheless, Mitchell found God (again) and was later lauded for cross-community peace work. And rightly so too.

The families also had Mitchell in the frame for ordering the attack which resulted in the mass murder of McGurk’s Bar (after the planned attack of the nearby Gem Bar was abandoned).

Edwards does not name his close friend and mentor.

That can be easily explained.

Because of his close relationship with his sources, the author may know that the attack had nothing to do with Mitchell. Or even if he believed Mitchell did order the attack, the author may have questioned his sources or considered that it did not pass his test for inclusion in his history text.

Otherwise, the author may know/believe that Mitchell was involved but chose not to include the information.

Only the author can tell us.

We asked the Historical Enquiries Team whether it was Billy Mitchell who passed information to the British military a few days after the McGurk’s Bar Massacre about the Loyalist support he could call upon in Rathcoole (Brigade Intelligence Summary, 8th December 1971). Although the Mitchell in this file offered information about the Rathcoole Defence Association under the local UDA, and not UVF.
mitchell brigade intell 8th dec 71 web

This man was held in regard by the British intelligence officer too “as a man of some standing and influence”. At that stage there was no “adverse trace” although, if it was UVF Billy Mitchell, his name would have been well known to British Military Intelligence due to his close connections with British agents (and infamous paedophiles), John McKeague and William McGrath. He still may not have had an adverse trace as far as British handlers were concerned, though.

As it is, the HET ran a mile and we are yet to have it confirmed that it was him or indeed what his connections were to British Military Intelligence.

Nevertheless, it was the same Billy Mitchell who was on a British Intelligence “excluded list” of Loyalists who could not be targeted by Senior Information Officer, Colin Wallace, in 1974 after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings (ref. Barron Report). British Intelligence denied clearance for Wallace to target him and a number of other UVF leaders in psychological operations. The others on the excluded list included alleged British agents Billy Hanna, Robin Jackson and Robert McConnell of Glenanne Gang[ii] infamy.

Robert James Campbell

When telling the story of the operation which ended in the McGurk’s Bar Massacre, Edwards zooms in on the one person convicted of the atrocity, Robert James Campbell, and includes even the bomber’s thoughts and feelings. He “enjoyed” a celebratory drink after the mass murder with the unnamed man who had ordered him to do it:

“Both men rounded off the evening with mixed emotions. In the eyes of the UVF commander, a blow had been struck against the enemy. Campbell was much more sanguine. He took no pleasure from his actions that evening, or any other.” (p43)

Campbell’s sanguinity – his cheerful optimism that everything was going to be okay – is somewhat misplaced. It was not shared by our families, for sure, and not for the north of Ireland either as another three and a half thousand or so human beings were to lose their lives.

As an interesting aside for lovers of words, sanguine comes from the Latin sanguis, meaning “blood”, hence sanguine can denote a ruddy, blood-red complexion like a drunkard’s cheeks. Its archaic use for bloody and blood-thirsty can be appropriate here too. Indeed, blood-thirstiness and drunkenness are motifs of many of the UVF’s killings recounted in the book along with a heady draught of fundamentalism. Or maybe the author has misused the word.

I digress.

Edwards re-focuses on Campbell:

“He was later described by Gusty Spence [UVF leader] as someone who was ‘non-sectarian, someone who not only worked happily alongside Catholics, but associated with them through his membership of Grosvenor Homing Pigeon Society.’”

It is entirely up to the writer how he/she paints a picture of the dramatis personae of any text, as Edwards frames them himself (x – xii), and Edwards does then write about the “slaughter of innocent people, out for a drink in their local pub”.

Nevertheless, you have to search the back of the book to discover that Campbell’s 15 innocent victims in this one attack included two children, 13-year-old James Cromie, and 14-year-old, Maria McGurk, whose mother and uncle were also murdered. So too was 73-year-old, Philip Garry.

I believe that victim-makers can be victims and that they too have a human face and voice. So, Edwards can argue that Campbell was a victim of circumstance and the context of the time and he is correct – up to a point – as there are thousands of men and women who would never have done the things they did on fellow human beings except for the conflict:

“At one time, Campbell had glimpsed the humanity in the faces of his Catholic work colleagues. That empathy now evaporated with every job he was handed down by his UVF superiors” (p. 43).

That is some disclaimer – offered by the author himself. Campbell was just an ordinary, non-sectarian man doing what he was ordered apparently. The Nuremberg defence.

Nevertheless, Edwards is quoted in a recent Newsletter article[iii]:

“I find that the people responsible for the 564 deaths of the UVF and RHC [Red Hand Commando] – they would say categorically that they were responsible for what they did.”

Authorial Intent

So, let’s re-frame what Gusty Spence said about Campbell above – although, for any literary theorists among you, I am making my authorial intent obvious.

Spence was a peacemaker in later life and lauded as such. But he served a life sentence for the sectarian murder of 18-year-old, Peter Ward. So, here we have one man convicted of the sectarian murder of a teenager telling us that another man convicted of the sectarian murder of children is not sectarian.

As I said, the writer decides how to frame the story but perhaps Edwards should let Campbell take responsibility as a man and not blame it on his superiors, the organisation or the conflict.

When he was arrested in 1977, for example, Campbell was not so worried about his superiors when he started squealing on his comrades (although the police denied he had buried anybody until I found this in files):

D/Sgt Patterson: How many men did you have under your control…?

Campbell: About 15 in all

D/Sgt Patterson: Name them.

Campbell: Sgt. [REDACTED] Silverstream Road. Volunteer [REDACTED], known as Pretty Boy, Westway Estate, Works in shipyard.

Remained silent:

D/Sgt Patterson: Come on let’s have the rest of the unit.

Robert James Campbell squaels on the younger members of his UVF gang

Campbell fingered Aubrey Tarr and Pretty Boy Benjamin Edwards, who gained notoriety as one of the Shankill Butchers (unless there was another Pretty Boy among Campbell’s killers), as UVF members.

The police would have us believe that Campbell did not reveal the names of the other McGurk’s Bar killers even though he had broken easily. The police, we now know, had the names of them all and detailed information regarding the operation that night. They had intelligence which named individual bombers in the days, months and years after but this very precise information came from a protected source in March 1976.

This coincided with the arrest and interrogation of younger B Company members for the murder of Protestant civilian John Morrow, a heroic worker whose quick reactions saved the lives of 5 Catholic colleagues he was driving home when ambushed by Campbell’s unit in January 1976. This particular operation was to be a copy-cat of the sectarian killing of the 10 Protestant workmen by the IRA at Kingsmills two weeks previously. Mr Morrow’s killing was the 16th murder that Campbell served time for although he was not arrested for another 16 months. PSNI/HET could not explain the strategic decision for this delay, or did not want to explain it as it was because the police were protecting agents.

This precise intelligence also coincided with the arrest and interrogation of Billy Mitchell who we believe ordered Campbell out of the bar of the West Belfast Orange Hall on the cold night of Saturday 4th December 1971.

I directed PSNI/HET to examine the police interview notes from the interrogations at this time, as we were told that they could not find the source of the detailed information (which the police did not act upon anyway). They did not.

What we were told though was that there were “serious investigative failures” that two of the killers (B and D in the HET reports) were not arrested and questioned. PSNI/HET could not “confirm nor deny” that the police failed to act upon the information from March 1976 and arrest these two especially as they were protecting agents of the British state. We have argued this for decades.

When two were finally “arrested” in 2014 in a PSNI window-dressing exercise, I wrote that they were just in to be debriefed and would be out by tea-time.

And they were indeed.

Campbell’s “unit” was guilty of some of the most gruesome, indiscriminate and cut-throat sectarian killings of the conflict but it is also correct that he was a proud family man.

Nevertheless, the reader might also want to know that his platoon included his son, also Robert James, and he too served a life sentence for sectarian murder. James “Tonto” Watts, another mass-murderer associated with the Shankill Butchers, worked closely with Tarr and Campbell.  

Tarr was convicted of another heinous sectarian murder (again committed when the killers were drunk) of 17-year-old Ciarán Murphy. I am a close family friend of the Murphy family and I examined Ciarán’s killing in a chapter of my book entitled Housekeeping. Edwards also examines the teenager’s final hours.

The arrests and interrogation of B Company members including the likes of Campbell (father and son), Tarr, Rodgers and Watts from April 1977 to September 1977 are crucial to the investigation of scores of unsolved murders between 1971 – 1977 by which time the UVF had killed over 336 people (60% of its total). They all scrambled to squeal on one another and we know this as we have many of the police files.

The RUC convicted some in 1978 but allowed many others to go free even though it had corroborating evidence from admissions like the one Campbell made. The other mass-murderers of McGurk’s Bar are a case in point. As is the UDA’s “Window Cleaner”[iv] who retrieved the gun used in the murder of Ciarán Murphy and is one of at least two British agents who killed the teenager with Tarr (the other being the owner of the car used in the kidnap, initials TR).

So, yes, it is up to the writer how he/she wishes to frame a history but I would be concerned by what Edwards chose to leave out.

I would also expect forensic detail from such a learned writer.

Source of the Disinformation

For example, Edwards writes:

“… it was the Unionist government’s spread of disinformation about the explosion being the result of an IRA ‘own-goal’, which led to a botched handling of the case. That bias crept into the follow-up police investigation had even deadlier consequences, for it was the UVF, not the IRA, which had already honed its bomb-making skills at the time, the only loyalist organisation to have this capability.”

This was a time of experimentation with explosives on all sides and, indeed, fluidity between Loyalist groupings. But Edwards tells us on the same page that the UDA blew up the Fiddlers House in October 1971[v]. Either way, the bombers of McGurk’s Bar used gelignite with a fuse so the only capability required after procuring it, was the ability to light it and run away.

That is a small point but leads me on to a greater concern for our campaign. Edwards is correct to note the Unionist government’s spread of disinformation as I too have noted the complicity of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister [link] and his Minister of State, John Taylor [link].

I vehemently refute though that this “led to a botched handling of the case”. It is factually and historically incorrect.

Edwards has excused the nefarious cover-up of the state’s RUC police force in one sentence (and completely ignores the culpability of his employer, the British Ministry of Defence).

We have traced the original lie about the bombing of McGurk’s Bar and the criminalisation of the innocent victims to an RUC report transmitted to the state’s security agencies and the press within hours (ref. Duty Officers’ Report, 5th December 1971).

In it, the police created a fictitious IRA bomber with an imaginary suitcase sitting among the customers. The police even imagined that the bomb in the suitcase was meant for other premises but the former PSNI Chief Constable could not tell me where this came from or which police officer wrote:

“a man entered the licenced premises and left down a suitcase presumably to be picked up by a known member of the Provisional IRA. The bomb was intended for use on other premises. Before the ‘pick-up’ was made the bomb exploded.”

This is because it was completely made-up lie which was then disseminated by the police.

We also proved that the RUC Chief Constable, Graham Shillington, and his head of Special Branch, misinformed government. At a Joint Security Committee meeting on 16th December 1971, the RUC chiefs told the Northern Ireland Prime Minister (Brian Faulkner), the Minister of State for Home Affairs (John Taylor) and the General Office Commanding British troops in the north (Harry Tuzo) that:

“Circumstantial evidence indicates that this was a premature detonation and two of those killed were known IRA members, at least one of whom had been associated with bombing activities. Intelligence indicates that the bomb was destined for use elsewhere in the city.”

Again, police lies. The PSNI have absolutely no reference to two known IRA members and all of the actual evidence pointed the finger at Loyalists.

This mountain of evidence included:

  • Witness statements including one from a boy who saw the bomb being planted and lit
  • Forensic and pathology reports which corroborated the witness statements
  • Expert witness reports from a bomb expert on the scene informed HQNI, the RUC Liaison Officer and the GOC that the bomb was planted outside the main bar area (ie, was attacked)
  • Information from a sister police force in Scotland which detailed the involvement of the head of the Scotland’s UVF, Bill Campbell, the person who procured the gelignite
  • Evidence of similar attacks at the time
  • An admission of blame by Loyalists

Edwards himself touches on a crucial piece of evidence – the car which conveyed the death squad to the New Lodge and which was then abandoned a couple of streets away.

“As the UVF men rounded the corner a huge explosion sent their pulses racing. As calmly as he could, the driver pulled up at the kerbside and turned off the ignition. The doors opened and the men got out, making their way towards Donegal Street, where they were collected by another vehicle[vi] and driven the short distance to an Orange Hall on the Shankill”

A forensic historian would ask: “What happened to the car which the killers abandoned two streets away?”[vii]

We now know that RUC found the car (as one would expect) and examined it for finger prints. An insert in a fingerprint ledger proves that RUC had indeed discovered the abandoned “car used in explosion Gt. George St.” (sic) and dusted it for evidence.

We now know too that RUC found 2 partial prints.

Nevertheless, the RUC disappeared this crucial evidence which proved the bar was attacked and may even have led at this very early stage of the investigation to the arrest of the person/persons who left prints.

So, the police (past and present) are up to their neck in it along with the British state and the MoD as they knew that McGurk’s Bar was attacked [link]. There is no way they can be excused by anyone in the sweep of one sentence. 


Edwards also writes:

“Although RUC and British Army intelligence on Protestant armed groups at this time was limited, they were subsequently able to intern two loyalists for terror offences, including the bombing of McGurk’s Bar.”

That’s a bold statement about the limitations of RUC and British Army intelligence on Protestant armed groups at the time but that is a post for another time[viii]. The British Security Forces actually interned two Catholics for the McGurk’s Bar bombing. The claim was simply appended to their charge sheets by RUC without any evidence and without questioning (p.167-8 in my book). One of them actually challenged this legally and was released.

It could be that Edwards has got his information wrong (which happens and which is easily fixed in the next print run); or it could be that there were indeed two Loyalists interned for the McGurk’s Bar bombing.

This would be very important information even though we know that internment was no proof of any internee’s guilt as they were imprisoned without trial.

We do know that one of the McGurk’s Bar killers was actually interned for a period of nearly a year and half in the mid-70s although I asked whether the attack on McGurk’s Bar was on his charge sheet and I was told by police investigators that it was not.

If Edwards is correct and two Loyalists were interned “for terrorist offences, including the bombing of McGurk’s Bar”, this is crucial evidence in how RUC dealt with the killers: it interned one for certain; delayed arresting Campbell for 16 months (at least) despite intelligence from a source with detailed knowledge of the attack; and allowed the other mass-murderers to remain free. The RUC’s “serious investigative failure” regarding two of these scream that they are agents and the only question I have regards when they became agents… before or after the McGurk’s Bar Massacre?


As with any book on the conflict in the north, it is always interesting what beliefs and relationships we bring to a text and how these mould the script and our reading of it. Whole texts on literary criticism and theory are written about it.

I too allude to the same in my own book:

“Here, history before and history since, has been a contest in itself. A similar contest may even be played out between the pages of this book – between writer and reader – but archives have a way of telling their own truths.”

When reading Dr. Edwards treatment of those involved in the McGurk’s Bar bombing, I asked myself what influence his beliefs and relationships had on what he wrote about the attack. Convicted sectarian child killer, Robert James Campbell, is humanised and that is the story-teller’s prerogative. I have used mine in this article to re-frame a different tale.

His close friend and mentor, Billy Mitchell, is the central character and flawed hero of his book. But he does not name him as the architect of the slaughter of innocent men, women and children in McGurk’s Bar. Could it be that he deliberately left out this information if it was indeed Mitchell who ordered Campbell out that night and then had a celebratory drink with him afterwards.

Only he can tell us.

Again it is the writer’s prerogative how he frames his content and draws his dramatis personae. The reader decides whether to accept this or not.

What we cannot excuse, though, is re-writing what has taken our families 45 years to prove from British Army and police files. The RUC and Ministry of Defence left their dirty prints all over the McGurk’s Bar Massacre and its cover-up. We might be still be fighting them in court on these points but I am certain that Dr. Edwards would agree with us when he examines the historical evidence. We have it to hand… as we had to find it ourselves.


[i] The Sutton Index estimates that of those the UVF killed, around 4% were Republican combatants. UVF killed more than double that amount of Loyalist/former Loyalist members. Around 85% of those murdered by UVF were civilians, the vast majority Catholic or Protestants mistaken for Catholics.

[ii] Incidentally, Edwards dismisses the “popular narrative” (Newsletter interview regarding collusion between Loyalists and the state – albeit unconvincingly. He barely mentions the Glenanne gang in passing even though it was made up of many British Army and RUC personnel and was responsible for over a fifth of UVF killings (ref. Lethal Allies). What he deems to be collusion or what makes a narrative popular is not examined in depth. Nor is the role of the UVF’s long-term Chief of Staff who has held the position since 1976. Edwards barely even alludes to him (during the Supergrass trials, for example, when he was held in remand) and uses the codename “The Pipe” instead of “Bunter” as most readers would recognise him although he has been named as John Graham in many newspaper articles and books, an allegation which Graham denies. In other articles it is alleged that the UVF Chief of Staff is a British agent but this is refuted by the organisation.
[iii] It reads in the article that Edwards is referring to individual members of the RHC and UVF rather than homogenous groups responsible for the killings but either way the main thrust seems to be that the British state was not responsible for their killings apparently
[iv] Edwards incorrectly says that he “was nicknamed ‘the window-cleaner’ for his tendency to murder people while out cleaning windows in West Belfast” (page 79). It is wrong to think that there was a murderous window cleaner who would wash the windows of one house and whack the owner of the next house knocking about Belfast. The Window Cleaner gang got its name, of course, as it was believed that they entered victims’ houses through open windows and may have used ladders they found out the back of the houses. The killings with this modus operandi were in north Belfast, not west. Spotlight outed the leader of the Window Cleaner gang in 2005 as Thomas McCreery although McCreery denied this.
[v] I note in my book that it a gelignite bomb was used in the Fiddler’s House attack and followed a pattern of subsequent UVF attacks including McGurk’s Bar.
[vi] Campbell actually confesses that they had been due to be picked up by another vehicle which failed to stop. The killers then had to make their way toward St. Anne’s Cathedral and phone for another driver to collect them!
[vii] Campbell confessed it was abandoned in the area of Little York Street.
[viii] The British state actually ignored Loyalist violence at this time and even denied its existence in the press which was part and parcel of its Information Policy. At the same time, British Army patrolled with Loyalist vigilantes and liaised with their leaders. The RUC had actually taken off over 80 Loyalist suspects from the proposed first internment swoops and later documents (unreleased) name hundreds of alleged Loyalist suspects along with their positions, ages and addresses. The state still had its agents in place and archives from the period prove that the British Army had little problem in gaining intelligence from sources (general/anonymous/controlled). Most of their information would have come from neighbours and down at the local pub.

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